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Seed Saviors 

Deb Freeman and Joshua Fitzwater introduce nearly extinct, exceptionally sweet watermelon to Richmond.

click to enlarge Joshua Fitzwater holding a Red-N-Sweet watermelon grown for seed in Halifax, Virginia.

Joshua Fitzwater holding a Red-N-Sweet watermelon grown for seed in Halifax, Virginia.

“When someone says watermelon this is what you expect, but never what you get,” says The Roosevelt’s Executive Chef Leah Branch.

Branch is referring to the Red-N-Sweet, an extremely rare heirloom watermelon first harvested from the sandy, loamy soil of North Louisiana. This summer, thanks to the dogged efforts of self-proclaimed heirloom hunters Joshua Fitzwater and Debra Freeman, this exceptionally sweet melon has found its way onto the plates and into the mouths of Virginians for the first time.

Partners in life, love, and long road trips, Freeman and Fitzwater have put thousands of miles on their car seeking out the very best heirloom melons the country has to offer, from upstate Pennsylvania to Sumter, South Carolina.

The story of how Fitzwater and Freeman started growing and harvesting perfect specimens of a native Louisiana watermelon on a small plot of land in Halifax, VA is worthy of an HBO docuseries. There’s drama, intrigue, suspense—will this delicious fruit survive a cross-country journey?

This is a story, of course, about watermelons. But first we must talk about apples.

Home of the Red-N-Sweet

“Before I was covering six parishes, I was experimenting with southern apple varieties that you just don't see anymore,” says Louisiana State University AgCenter horticulture agent Kerry Heafner.

A former assistant professor of systematic botany at University of Louisiana Monroe, Heafner is accustomed to educating folks about plant life. In late February 2020, he was speaking to the Marion Garden Club about some of the apples he was experimenting with.

“Afterwards we were sitting, visiting, having refreshments and Miss Lula came up to me,” says Heafner.

“Miss Lula” Shurtleff approached Heafner and uttered perhaps the sweetest words a North Louisiana horticulturist could ever hear: “I think I have some watermelon seeds developed at Calhoun Station.”

click to enlarge Horticulturist Kerry Heafner in 2021 holding a Red-N-Sweet heirloom watermelon grown at Belle Haven Kids Farm in Calhoun, Louisiana and gifted to Joshua Fitzwater.
  • Horticulturist Kerry Heafner in 2021 holding a Red-N-Sweet heirloom watermelon grown at Belle Haven Kids Farm in Calhoun, Louisiana and gifted to Joshua Fitzwater.

From 1888 to 2011, the Louisiana State University Agriculture Calhoun Research Center—aka the Calhoun Station—served as a hub for experimentation, with scientists working to develop new strains of field peas, peaches, watermelons and more.

Heafner says that starting in 1972, researchers began crossing different watermelon varieties with the goal of creating a sturdy, disease-resistant melon that could handle the heat and humidity of the gulf. Once they had developed a hardy melon, they would focus on taste—and sweetness.

Between 1972 and 1987, the Station would breed and develop five “Calhoun” melons—the Calhoun Sweet, the Summit, the Calhoun Gray, the Louisiana Queen and, finally, the Red-N-Sweet.

A week after his Marion Garden Club talk, Heafner was seated at a dining table across from Shurtleff, carefully examining the contents of a cracker tin which had been stored in Shurtleff’s deep freeze for nearly two decades.

“It was sort of like opening Al Capone’s vault,” laughs Heafner. Inside the tin were three bags of watermelon seeds: one from 2001, another from 2003 and the final bag dated 2006.

Cautiously optimistic, Heafner took these precious seeds to the lab. “I was thinking, ‘are these seeds even viable?’ ‘And if they’re viable—will they germinate?’”

Within a few days, Heafner says he saw germination in seeds from all three years, a miraculous event that rivaled, surely, the opening of Capone’s vault. Heafner grew out the seeds in a greenhouse and when they started to produce plants, he took the healthiest looking vine from the 2006 batch and planted it between two apple trees.

“It produced exceptionally large melons,” says Heafner. The melons weighed, on average, between 18 and 22 pounds, with a dozen more falling between the 30- and 46-pound range. “They looked like striped hogs laying in the ground to me,” laughs Heafner.

While the seed envelopes had been marked “Red-N-Sweet” by original seed owner, the late Jess Petersen, Heafner did not rely solely on this information. He also referred to writing by the now retired Dr. Charles Johnson, who had detailed qualities of the Calhoun Station-developed Red-N-Sweet more than three decades ago.

“Miss Lula got a 30-pounder [from my vine] and she sent the seeds back to me to keep growing,” says Heafner. The horticulture agent posted about his exciting discovery on an heirloom Facebook page and not long after a certain Virginian was messaging him.

When Fitzwater told Heafner that he and Freeman planned to travel almost 2,000 miles to West Monroe, Louisiana to taste this nearly extinct watermelon, Heafner was blown away. “It was just incredible—who does that? I figured, well, it must be interesting enough for them to come all the way here. I mean, it’s just as good as the story can get.”

click to enlarge Debra Freeman in Fredericksburg, Va. were she assisted Joshua Fitzwater and his father in growing 100+ rare heirloom watermelons on indigenous Patawomeck land. Image is from 2020.
  • Debra Freeman in Fredericksburg, Va. were she assisted Joshua Fitzwater and his father in growing 100+ rare heirloom watermelons on indigenous Patawomeck land. Image is from 2020.

The road trip(s)

What would possess someone to drive from the city of Richmond to Calhoun, Louisiana in the dead of summer?

For Freeman, a prolific food anthropologist, writer and host of the newly launched and already popular podcast, “Setting the Table,” it was a bit of a sell. But she acquiesced because she, like partner Fitzwater, is a sucker for a good story.

“There was this whole idea of finding these watermelons that no one has heard of in a very specific place,” says Freeman. “It goes back to ‘What did these watermelons taste like hundreds of years ago versus what we eat today?’”

Freeman and Fitzwater have been on the hunt for heirloom melons since 2019, and they started growing their own heirlooms—including the Ali Baba, the ancient crookneck and the Moon and Stars—in 2020.

For Fitzwater, the founder and publisher of Hampton Roads-based Southern Grit Magazine, hunting down heirloom melons is a passion project in and of itself. Freeman sees her role as more supporting storyteller—she likes the taste, sure, but it’s the buried narratives that get her in the car.

For instance, while getting “lost” in the rabbit hole of heirloom melons, Freeman learned about O’Dell’s White, a watermelon attributed to—for the first time—an African American seedsman who was enslaved in South Carolina. “I needed to figure out his story,” says Freeman, who penned “A Fruitful Journey: My Watermelon Summer” for the Southern Foodways Alliance.

Of all the heirloom watermelons in the world (that undoubtedly pair well with gin), Freeman says she and Fitzwater are seeking out the stories, yes, but also at a very basic level they’re asking “What is the sweetest watermelon? And how can we get it?”

When Fitzwater saw Heaftner’s post in 2021, getting in the car was a no-brainer. Purportedly the sweetest of the heirlooms currently in circulation, the Red-N-Sweet was an all-too-tempting carrot for the hunters. Add the fact that the few seeds in existence landed serendipitously in the hands of a horticulture agent? Almost too good to be true.

But it was true. “I became a believer after tasting it,” says Freeman. Fitzwater describes their journey back to Virginia with a Red-N-Sweet melon as one may describe the transportation of a precious organ. As red as a human heart, the Red-N-Sweet traveled to its new home in the Old Dominion buckled into a seatbelt, and put on ice at every stop.

“When we hot home we cut it open and it was just like the one we tried [in Louisiana],” says Fitzwater. “It was perfection, and we saved the seeds.”

click to enlarge Anthony Fitzwater, 70, in 2022 sitting with a Red-N-Sweet heirloom watermelon in Halifax, Va. that he and his son Joshua grew to commercially reintroduce the melon to growers and farmers.
  • Anthony Fitzwater, 70, in 2022 sitting with a Red-N-Sweet heirloom watermelon in Halifax, Va. that he and his son Joshua grew to commercially reintroduce the melon to growers and farmers.

Spreading the gospel

Summer 2022 was record-hot, but the sweltering weather did not deter Fitzwater, Freeman or Fitzwater’s father, Anthony, from planting and assiduously tending to the Red-N-Sweet seeds (derived from the Heafner-gifted melon) on Anthony’s family property in Halifax, VA.

“We’ve had a huge issue with the lines the entire summer, but every other day my dad has been out there hand-watering these plants at 70-years-old,” says Fitzwater. “He built all the mounds himself.”

Fitzwater’s father had grown melons in the Hampton Roads area in small batches before, but never at this level, and never with this much at stake.

“You can only get Red-N-Sweet in Monroe, Louisiana,” says Freeman. “And here we are in Virginia being able to introduce this to people who have never tasted it before. There is something kind of noble about it, bringing back from near extinction something like that. It was almost lost to the world.”

The trio started planting their seeds in June and to date have pulled about 60 melons that have met Red-N-Sweet breed standards—or better. That means melons in the 18–24-pound range with a brix rating (how sweet it is) of 11-14 percent. Heafner, who judges watermelon quality at festivals, notes that most of those award-winning melons come in at a 10-11 brix rating.

So yes, the Red-N-Sweet is, according to a scientific scale, damn sweet. And damn fun to play with, too.

Fitzwater and Freeman have shared this rare gem with restaurants, chefs, mixologists and brewers in both Hampton Roads and Richmond, and hope to have an even larger crop to share next summer, with plans to plant seeds on their newly purchased property in Amelia as well as the Fitzwater property in Halifax.

When Chef Branch received her allocation of melon, she created a seasonal masterpiece. Her “summer salad” featured bruleed thick, rectangular pieces of the Red-N-Sweet plated alongside the melon’s pickled rinds, preserved kumquats, snap peas, formosa, sun tea vinaigrette and celery leaves.

“It’s exciting to see it transformed to more than just eating a piece of fruit, to see it becoming a central piece of a dish used in such unusual ways,” says Freeman. “Once a chef is preparing it at a restaurant and giving it to someone then that sparks the person to say, ‘What is this?’ it continues and snowballs and it’s really a beautiful thing.”

TRY THE RED-N-SWEET TODAY

—>For a limited time, walk don’t run do the watermelon crawl to Benchtop Brewing at 434 Hull Street for their “tart, juicy, grainy” Jouble Jeuce featuring the Red-N-Sweet. This infused sour already boasts notes of raspberry and strawberry, with the melon added post fermentation. Benchtop owner/master brewer Eric Tennant says they used two 30-35 pound watermelons harvested from Anthony Fitzwater’s Halifax property to create this 6% ABV special. On draft only.

click to enlarge Benchtop Brewing, which is located  in the new Hatch eating establishment, has produced a beer based on Fitzwater's watermelon. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Benchtop Brewing, which is located in the new Hatch eating establishment, has produced a beer based on Fitzwater's watermelon.
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